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The Graham Album Review #2017

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Sonny Landreth: Blacktop Run
by George Graham

(Provogue Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/11/2020)

In the blues world, guitarists tend to get a lot of attention, since the instrument is to key to the electric blues, and also the acoustic blues. Some players are known for their fast and fiery playing, while others go for the slow burn with the blues aspect really emphasized in the playing. While there are many conventions in the blues that most players adhere to, and sometimes it’s hard to tell one player from the next, there are a few guitarists who really stand out for their sound or technique. B.B. King was certainly one of those.

This week we have a new album from an artist who for almost 40 years has been charting out a distinctive style over a series of his own albums and appearances with others. It’s Sonny Landreth and his new recording, his 14th studio album is called Blacktop Run.

A native of Mississipi and long-time resident of Southwest Louisiana, Clyde Vernon “Sonny” Landreth cut his teeth on zydeco music, playing at a young age with zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band. The zydeco influence has stayed with his music, and he has been called the “king of slydeco” emphasizing his slide guitar technique. Landreth is known for using the fingers of his left hand to form chords while he uses his trademark glass guitar slide on his little finger, and has a right-hand technique of using a finger-pick on his thumb while picking with his other fingers. The result is a distinctive sound that is bluesy but goes beyond the familiar stereotypes of what a blues guitar should sound like. His first solo album was in 1981, and over the years, he has worked as a side-man or guest with artists including John Mayall – he appeared on Mayall’s 1990 album A Sense of Place -- as well a diverse list including Mark Knopfler, Marshall Crenshaw, Kenny Loggins, Little Feat, and Gov’t Mule. Landreth was a featured artist in Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar festivals, and has won a ringing endorsement from Clapton, who called him the “most under-appreciated” guitarist.

For the new album, Landreth worked with producers RS Field and Tony Daigle, whom Landreth said encouraged him to try some different directions. Indeed, the album features four instrumentals and he plays a fair amount of acoustic resonator guitar.

The band on the album includes keyboard man and composer Steve Conn, bassist David Ranson and drummer Brian Brignac, who together prove to be as versatile as the material requires with Conn bringing in an accordion when the zydeco influence makes itself known. Landreth tends to keep the music upbeat in sound and mood, even when the tune is slower and borders on being an acoustic ballad. He’s an appealing vocalist with his high slightly edgy tenor a good match for the music, but often, he lets the guitar speak for itself, with four out of the ten tracks on Blacktop Run being instrumentals.

Leading off is the title piece Blacktop Run with Landreth mainly on acoustic resonator guitars. The sound is eclectic with occasional hints of Eastern tonality, while still hinting at the proverbial Lousiana swamp. <<>>

The first of the instrumentals is called Lover Dance with Me, which shows off both Landreth’s technique and distinctive sound on his electric guitar. <<>>

Showing zydeco influence, complete with accordion, is the track Mule. It’s a bouncy upbeat song whose lyrics are about unrequited love. <<>>

Landreth gets very electric on the instrumental called Groovy Goddess, which keeps the energy level up while still having interesting musical ideas and transitions. <<>>

The album includes a piece by keyboard man Steve Conn called Somebody Gotta Make a Move. It’s a slow minor key blues that is a highlight among the vocal tracks. <<>>

There’s more zydeco influence with the accordion on Don’t Ask Me, also written by keyboard man Conn, with Landreth featured on both acoustic and electric guitars. <<>>

Perhaps most eclectic of the instrumentals is Many Worlds, which again features Landreth on multiple electric and acoustic slide guitars, in an inventive mixture. <<>>

The album ends with a mostly acoustic vocal track Something Grand. It’s another departure, a sort of love song, which Landreth points out is the only track on the album without a guitar solo. <<>>

Sonny Landreth calls new album Blacktop Run, the 14th studio release by the 69-year old Louisiana guitarist, his most eclectic recording to date, which I would agree with. Though often associated with the blues, Landreth gets to show off a lot of different musical facets on this recording which cover a lot of ground in its succinct 35 minute length. His innovative guitar style and technique is on full display, but the material is also quite worthwhile, and Landreth’s vocals are appealing. His band is tight and the production on the album is first-rate with the arrangements and material conveying a distinctive and engaging style.

Our grade for sound quality is a B plus. The material is generally well-recorded and the blending of the acoustic and electric sounds is well-handled, but the recording is, typically, over-compressed undermining the dynamics of the performance and taking a lot of the punch out of the music. When everything is maximally loud almost all the time, there is no place for the music to go up.

Sonny Landreth has carved out his own personal space in the blues-rock guitar world, over a nearly 40-year career. Despite winning various awards and appearing twice on the cover of “Guitar Player” magazine, Landreth has yet to become a household name the way other venerable guitarists in rock and blues have. But the new album provides an excellent representation of this creative player.

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